Arts & Events

Stunning Shostakovich 8th Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday June 02, 2019 - 11:01:00 AM

Dmitri Shostakovich may be at one and the same time both the most intensely political composer and the most intensely personal. In so much of his music – symphonies, trios, string quartets, operas – Shostakovich wrote musical meditations on the life of his country, the Soviet Union, and in doing so he also meditated upon his own difficulties in coming to grips with the political realities of his era, the Stalin years. Born in 1906, Shostakovich came of age after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. At age eighteen, he wrote his Symphony No. 1, presenting it as his graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory. With this success, Shostakovich burst on the scene as a much-heralded Soviet composer.  

Over the ensuing years, Shostakovich’s reputation waxed and waned several times over, as he often ran afoul of the Soviet cultural watchdogs. Having been accused of formalism, Shostakovich ‘rehabilitated’ himself with his immensely popular 5th Symphony. Then, in 1941, he won acclaim for his 7th Symphony, a paean of praise to the citizens of Leningrad who withstood the brutal Nazi siege in World War II. However, when in 1943 Shostakovich followed this triumph with his 8th Symphony, many listeners were puzzled. What was Shostakovich saying in this anguished score? The answer, it would seem, is that Shostakovich was here meditating upon all that the war – and the years of Stalinist dictatorship, with its gulags, purges, and horrors – had cost the Russian people and Shostakovich himself.  

In performances Thursday through Saturday, May 30-June 1, the San Francisco Symphony presented Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor led by guest conductor Juraj Valčhua. Composed in mid-war 1943, the 8th Symphony is a vast panorama of the political and the personal. Almost miraculously, it’s all here in the music. It begins with a Fate motive, ominous and foreboding. There follows immediately a touchingly gentle melody in the violins, a momentary breath of fresh air. Then, as the Adagio, a 30-minute opening movement, develops, all hell breaks loose. There is military music, piercing screams from oboes and clarinets, a lovely English horn solo (beautifully performed by Russ deLuna), trumpet blasts, and more. 

Then there is a set of three marches – the first heroic or mock-heroic; the second a scherzo march with a forlorn piccolo solo (ably performed by Cathy Payne); and the third a march dominated by an elongated ostinato. I love the audacity with which Shostakovich keeps this rhythmic ostinato going and going, ever changing the instruments that perpetuate this relentless machine of sound and fury. And, like Shakespeare’s “sound and fury,” this ostinato may well be “signifying nothing,” the absolute senselessness of war and political brutality.  

Then the mood shifts, as the fourth movement, a Largo, offers a mournful, brooding sadness that is almost funereal, yet contains a suggestion of renewed life. And, finally, there is a shift from C minor to C Major, as the final movement begins to assert a tentative triumph over all the tragedy one has undergone earlier. Moreover, in this finale there are multiple false climaxes, big and brassy, yet the true mood established by Shostakovich in the end is one of quiet acceptance, as life goes on. It is a remarkable ending to a thoroughly remarkable symphony, and under the direction of Juraj Valčhua the San Francisco Symphony did this Shostakovich 8th Symphony proud. 

In the first half of this program, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik was the soloist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042. Barantschik is in his element in Bach’s music; and he may never have sounded better than in this concerto. His tone, which in some recent performances has occasionally sounded thin, was here plangent throughout. If Barantschik and conductor Valčhua tended to race through the two outer movements of this Bach concerto, they slowed everything down beautifully in the dreamy, middle Adagio. All told, this was a lively opener for a concert dominated by the stunning Shostakovich 8th Symphony.